11月 30, 2023

lady luck casino It’s time for our 14th annual Tiers of the NBA — my alternative to preseason power rankings. Grouping teams by where they are today and where they might go tomorrow is a useful way to step back and take broader stock of the league.

The order within tiers does not matter!

Let’s go!

Denver Nuggets

Milwaukee Bucks

Boston Celtics

Phoenix Suns

* The loose definition here: It will be at least a mild surprise if the 2023-24 NBA champion does not come from this group. These are the four best teams — the defending champions and three rivals who went all-in to catch them. The price of contention at this level — aside from a billionaire’s money — is depth; all four will have to suss out rotations, use whatever assets they have left (Boston has the most by a lot) to get reserve help, and work to survive inevitable injuries. As always, one injury at the wrong time can torpedo years of planning.

* I’ve seen a lot of brow furrowing about how no would-be usurper — including Milwaukee, Boston and Phoenix — made any offseason move to counter the unstoppable offensive force that is Nikola Jokic.

I would argue Milwaukee, Phoenix and Boston did just that. There is no one-on-one matchup for Jokic anymore — and no easy two-man method of defending the Jamal Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll. There is no defender who gives Jokic any real trouble on the block, no help scheme he can’t outthink the first time he sees it — or, at worst, the second. The Nuggets’ core lineups have enough shooting around him; their starting five has one so-so shooter in Aaron Gordon, but the other four guys bring enough range to accommodate him. Gordon fits perfectly in every other way.

One answer for Jokic, if such a thing exists, is to stretch him as far as possible on defense — make him cover more ground, skid between multiple long rotations, test his speed, and maybe tire him out.

There is no point in searching for some defensive answer that doesn’t exist, or spending multiple roster spots on plodding centers just because they are large. The way to beat Denver four times in seven games is to expand Jokic’s spatial responsibility on defense, score a lot of points, and hope that by skill and luck you hold Denver to a few less than you scored. (You do need decent perimeter defenders to do this.) Oh, and wallop the Nuggets in the non-Jokic minutes.

All three teams aimed this way with ultra-high-end talent.

* In the second round last season, the Nuggets brought Jokic high up on Devin Booker and Kevin Durant pick-and-rolls — but had him drop back closer to the paint against Chris Paul. It was a bet that Paul taking shots away from Booker and Durant was good for Denver, and that Paul, at his age, was no longer quick enough to blow by Jokic or even get off a clean long 2 every time.

The Suns are wagering the Booker-Durant-Bradley Beal trio will pull Jokic further out on more possessions, and play with much more speed — in transition and in the half court. When it matters, they can keep two of those three on the floor at all times. The Suns might sift for a back-end point guard, but you can’t have everything; it’s reasonable to hope there is enough passing with Booker, Durant and Beal for the offense to hum. (Jordan Goodwin will get chances, too.) They did as well as they could filling out wing depth.

The formula for Phoenix is elite offense and average defense. The degree to which they are counting on Jusuf Nurkic for the latter is slightly alarming. They will need Durant to dig deep in the playoffs — to provide some rim protection and rebound like hell. In Golden State, he had four playoff series of that in him. Does he still?

The thing to watch on offense — the place where the playmaking quotient comes into play — is whether Team Midrange gets up enough 3s. The margins at the highest levels are so, so tight. It’s really hard to win four series when you have to hit 50% on long 2s in damn near every game. Just flipping four or five shots from 18 feet to beyond the arc could be the difference.

* Boston’s best lineups will have five shooters — super-spacing. They have the big wings to punish Murray and even Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — enough swarming length to at least make Jokic think for a nanosecond before he passes out of the post, and then to contest jumpers. The Nuggets felt some relief when the Miami Heat won Game 7 of the conference finals in Boston last season.

This era’s Celtics have been a so-so passing team overreliant on jump-shooting — a major glitch in their sometimes wonky crunch-time offense. Too often, Boston seemed to forget that one point of five-out offenses — maybe the main point — is leveraging all the open space in the middle to put pressure on the rim. The C’s seem committed to doing more of that this season, perhaps insulating them from the vicissitudes of jump-shooting luck. We’ll see. They didn’t make any significant upgrades to their overall playmaking, although Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown should continue improving in small steps.

* The Damian Lillard-Giannis Antetokounmpo two-man game can gash any defense, even if the Bucks offer friendlier spots than Boston to stash minus defenders. Milwaukee has a more obvious weakness in its perimeter defense; it might start Lillard and Malik Beasley at guard — with Khris Middleton coming off several injuries as the nominal “best perimeter defender” in that potential starting five.

The Bucks have internal solutions for that — Jae Crowder, MarJon Beauchamp, shifting Antetokounmpo around, Middleton regaining peak form — but none is close to a sure thing. Their offense should make a huge leap, and the Antetokounmpo-Lopez frontcourt is a steady bulwark.

* Repeating is very difficult. The only teams that have accomplished it post-Michael Jordan were led by one and sometimes two of the top-15 players ever: Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant; then Bryant again; LeBron James; and Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry atop a once-in-history four-star conglomerate engineered only because of a one-time cap spike — so dominant at full strength as to be borderline unbeatable.

And even some of those repeats were by-the-skin-of-their-teeth feats: the Ray Allen shot in 2013; the seven-game slugfest between the Lakers and Celtics in 2010; the 2018 Houston Rockets, playing without Paul, missing 27 straight 3s in Game 7 against the Durant-Curry Warriors.

Jokic is either in the top-15 stratosphere already or well on his way. He is that transcendent talent who could lead the Nuggets to do what no team has managed since 2018. Their starting five is perfect. A slew of young players have to show they can fill in for Bruce Brown and Jeff Green (but mostly Brown.)

The Nuggets can do this.

Los Angeles Lakers

Golden State Warriors

* Both these teams have the goods to win four playoff series. Their path to a top-6 seed — play-in avoidance — is more fraught than the four inner-circle teams and maybe even than some teams in “lesser” tiers, and they need more things to break right even if they earn high seeds.

* If the eventual champion is not one of these six teams, it would qualify as a bigger surprise.

* The Lakers’ main obstacle is pretty simple: LeBron is almost 40 and gets hurt every season. Sometime around Game 20, he will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for No. 1 in all-time minutes played (regular-season and playoffs combined). The Lakers have enough ball handlers to compensate for a slightly limited LeBron — they got to the conference finals last season with LeBron nursing a foot injury, running fewer pick-and-rolls than ever — and even a limited LeBron remains dangerous as a cutter, shotgun quarterback and intimidator on defense. It’s just hard to imagine the Lakers winning 16 postseason games this way.

But this team is deep in two-way talent and makes structural sense. You can build a lot of great lineups around the LeBron/Austin Reaves/Anthony Davis trio. The Lakers have enough shooting to reinvigorate the LeBron-Davis pick-and-roll, which could in turn reinvigorate a half-court offense that was quietly pretty bad in both the regular-season and playoffs. Davis — my pick for Defensive Player of the Year — can lift these guys to a top-10 defense provided decent resistance along the perimeter.

* I’m not burying the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green Warriors until something breaks them apart. They won the title 17 months ago! Their style of play, built atop Curry’s relentless and untrackable off-ball movement, is unique in NBA history and really hard to play against. Should the matchup present itself, that Warriors’ style could be something of a final frontier test for Jokic and the Nuggets’ defense.

The Warriors may not have the ideal Green-at-center “death lineup” for when the Green-Kevon Looney duo becomes tougher to play amid cramped spacing. The version with Paul in Looney’s place is very small; Paul always seems to get injured before or during the playoffs. Gary Payton II is somewhat duplicative with Green because of his unreliable jumper.

Maybe this is the year Moses Moody or Jonathan Kuminga steps up as a true answer. Moody showed flashes in the last two playoff runs; the Warriors need more than flashes now. Kuminga destroyed the preseason.

That dream lineup aside, the Warriors should be in a stronger position to gut through the regular season if their young guys improve and Payton II is healthy.

Both these teams have the assets to make win-now trades — particularly Golden State.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Sacramento Kings

* It’s splitting hairs to slot these teams above the giant group in the West below them, but they feel a bit more stable — fully-formed, maybe — than those rivals. At least one team in the West tier below here — the LA Clippers — has more championship equity at full strength than either Minnesota or Sacramento, but the Clips reach “full strength” status much less often.

* Betting on things going right in Minnesota — or merely as expected — has been a losing proposition for the better part of 20 years.

I’m not sure any team has more riding on a positive first 15 or 20 games. Start slowly, and the questions about the financial viability of this roster will grow very loud. If the Wolves get to midseason and don’t think they can make serious noise in the playoffs, they could look to cut long-term salary in exchange for future picks. We know what that means.

The Wolves showed some mettle pushing Denver in the first round last season despite injuries to two of their top seven players in Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid. Even Karl-Anthony Towns, so wobbly in pretty much every prior playoff game of his career, appeared to turn something of a corner — or at least peek around it — in the final three games of that series. Anthony Edwards has been ready for the moment since Day 1; his bravado is seeping into the fabric of the team.

The Towns-Rudy Gobert pairing should look much better in Year 2 after they had almost no time to get off the ground last season. The starting five — Mike Conley, Edwards, McDaniels, Towns, Gobert — should have enough spacing to put up better offensive numbers than in their clunky first try.

Minnesota coach Chris Finch still has to figure out how to split up assignments on defense — how to maximize Gobert’s rim protection without overextending Towns on the perimeter. Even so, the McDaniels/Gobert/Edwards trio should be the foundation of a top-10 defense — if only these guys could grab a damn rebound.

The first few names off the bench are dependable, though it doesn’t help that Reid (mostly) plays the same position as Gobert and Towns.

If Conley maintains his level of play and McDaniels makes even a mini-leap, the sheer talent here is pretty strong.

* Perhaps I should be more concerned with the Kings’ 1-4 preseason, and Mike Brown’s dalliance with pulling Kevin Huerter from the starting five — potentially breaking up both the Huerter-Domantas Sabonis hand-off dance and the league’s most-played five-man lineup.

Sabonis floundered on offense in the Kings’ seven-game first-round loss against the Warriors. His limitations as a rim protector present challenges in building the kind of defense that adapts to any postseason opponent.

But the Kings’ formula on offense works. They have enviable continuity, and are deeper than last season. Opponent jump-shooters torched them, and while some of that is on the Kings’ lack of size, it still hints that their defense was a little better than the overall numbers suggest. The fundamentals — rebounding, foul rate, effort — were sound. (Keep an eye on Brown trying the Davion Mitchell-De’Aaron Fox pairing more.)

This team should hit the high 40s in wins again. That may not get them the No. 3 seed as it did last season, but it would keep them above the play-in fray. They also have the ammo for a win-now trade.

Cleveland Cavaliers

* The Cavs may run into playoff issues again — the playoffs are hard! — but it would take pretty catastrophic injury luck and/or something else going very, very wrong for this team to fall out of the top-6. They are young, with enough All-Star-level talent to withstand injuries.

Loading up on shooting around the Donovan Mitchell/Darius Garland/Evan Mobley/Jarrett Allen foursome was the right call. This team should win 50-ish games, and enters as the favorite to snag the East’s No. 3 seed behind Boston and Milwaukee.

New York Knicks

Miami Heat

Philadelphia 76ers

Atlanta Hawks

* If the East standings indeed fall this way — Boston, Milwaukee, Cleveland as top-3 — then these four are fighting for the final three locked-in playoff seeds.

* Chuckle at Atlanta’s presence here if you like. They’ve earned your scorn with some flailing roster moves, internal drama and sudden coaching changes. But they have a lot of talent — their first three off the bench should be among the best in the league, and that’s super-valuable in the regular season — and a higher ceiling (to these optimistic eyes, at least) than the teams in the next tier down. Quin Snyder is a regular-season wins booster.

The same kind of big-picture organizational pressure Minnesota faces applies to the Hawks: If the Trae Young-Dejounte Murray foundation meanders to another .500-ish season, is a big pivot coming?

* There are also good reasons to short the collective of New York, Philly and Miami. One of them seems ripe for a disappointing season. Which one?

New York seems sturdiest, with depth, continuity and a top-down commitment to prioritizing the regular season. (They also have all those juicy draft picks, Evan Fournier’s expiring contract, and some other tradable players.) Even if their bizarre offense — elite at scoring, bad at shooting! — slips, their defense (19th last season) should tighten some.

Both Tom Thibodeau and Julius Randle need to shed the yo-yo effect that has dogged their teams over multi-season arcs.

* Philly has, umm, extensive experience surviving internal melodrama. Yay for experience! Joel Embiid is the MVP, and Tyrese Maxey is ready to step into James Harden’s role as primary ball handler (and already did so when Harden was on the bench). Tobias Harris, De’Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker round out a solid starting five if Harden is benched or away. But Melton’s promotion stresses a so-so bench. One injury could teeter the whole enterprise.

With Harden, the Sixers vault up at least one tier and maybe into the inner sanctum. Alas, this franchise cannot be normal for more than one continuous week.

* Doubt the Heat at your peril. They missed on every big-name trade target of the last three years. They lost two starters from last season’s Finals team — Gabe Vincent and Max Strus — though neither was expected to fill that role a year ago, and one (Strus) might have vacated the postseason starting group at some point had Tyler Herro remained healthy.

Herro is back. He’s good! You know the Heat will cobble workable depth around young guys and retread veterans — including Josh Richardson, back in the bosom of #HeatCulture. That is what the Heat do. The Jimmy Butler-Bam Adebayo duo just wins.

But even in making three of the last four conference finals, the Heat have averaged only a 48-win regular-season pace in that four-year stretch. By that definition, the margin of error is thin — especially given Butler misses 15 or 20 games every season. (Those games are where having Herro back is huge.)

Brooklyn Nets

Toronto Raptors

Chicago Bulls

Indiana lady luck casino online Pacers

Orlando Magic

* If the top-7 falls as outlined above — and it never does — that leaves these five teams battling for spots Nos. 8-10 in the play-in.

* This is the strangest and most bunched-up tier. If you told me all five teams will win 39, 40 or 41 games, I’d shrug and say that sounds about right. Some are built to win today: the Bulls, the Raptors for now, the Nets to a more limited degree in the wake of the dismantling of their never-quite-was superteam.

Wednesday, Nov. 22Bucks at Celtics, 7:30 p.m.Warriors at Suns, 10 p.m.

Friday, Dec. 1Grizzlies at Mavericks, 7:30 p.m.Nuggets at Suns, 10 p.m.

All times Eastern

Meanwhile, approaching .500 would be a huge win for the rising Pacers and Magic.

* The Raptors seem the best bet to claw out of this tier; they outscored opponents by about six points per 100 possessions with Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, O.G. Anunoby and Jakob Poeltl on the floor last season — though almost all those minutes (and the entire positive scoring margin) came with Fred VanVleet at point guard.

Staggering Barnes and Siakam is the easiest way to prop up a bunch that is a question mark beyond Gary Trent Jr. (I’m still in on Precious Achiuwa, though.) Don’t get too low on Barnes after a stagnant second season. That happens. He’s going to be really good.

The Raptors have some incentive to chase wins, given they owe a top-6 protected first-round pick to the Spurs via the Jakob Poeltl deal. (The Nets owe their unprotected first-rounder to the Houston Rockets, so tanking late does them no good either.) Their on-again, off-again pursuit of Lillard indicates some appetite to win.

But if everything hits — and I mean everything — what’s the ceiling? About 45 wins?

* Ditto for the Nets, who went 12-19 (including their first-round sweep at the hands of Philly) with Mikal Bridges in the lineup. They have a lot of fun wings and project as a good-to-great defense, but not enough north-south oomph on offense. The re-actualized version of Ben Simmons could provide that. We’ll see. The Nets face something of an existential Simmons-related question: Can they score enough with the Simmons-Nic Claxton frontcourt? And if not, how high can their defense really lift them — especially in the non-Claxton minutes?

* This is a make-or-break season for this construction of the Bulls, if it isn’t broken already. Starting Coby White as the nominal point guard is an interesting gambit. He became a more well-rounded player last season in ways that didn’t show up on the stat sheet. Can he help unlock a star trio that hasn’t amounted to much more than a net-zero scoring margin? Is this the year Patrick Williams pops?

* I previewed the Magic and Pacers in depth on the Lowe Post podcast episodes here (Magic) and here (Pacers.) The Magic have two future All-Stars; one of Paolo Banchero, and Franz Wagner should make his first All-Star team by next season. Wagner is a Most Improved Player candidate now. This season is about finding out what the Magic have around the Wagner-Banchero-Wendell Carter Jr. (thanks, Bulls!) frontcourt — and if they eventually feel some urgency to trade for a guard.

* The Pacers have one surefire All-Star in Tyrese Haliburton, and a perennial bridesmaid — Myles Turner — who is very good and still young enough at 27 to be part of whatever this iteration of the Pacers turns into. Don’t write him out of the Haliburton era.

The new veterans — Bruce Brown and Obi Toppin — mesh with Haliburton’s go-go visionary passing. Indiana has some potential keeper young role players in Andrew Nembhard (who may become more than that), Aaron Nesmith and maybe Ben Sheppard. Their discovery process this season is learning more about whether Bennedict Mathurin and Jarace Walker project as foundational players.

Oklahoma City Thunder

New Orleans Pelicans

Memphis Grizzlies

LA Clippers

Dallas Mavericks

* The Thunder are the only team that titular “worried” doesn’t apply to here; whether they push for a top-4 seed or battle in the muck of play-in seeding is almost immaterial given their youth and overflowing bag of assets. They are either way ahead of schedule or way, way, way ahead of schedule.

Given how tight the West is, there may be no meaningful difference — three or four wins, maybe — between home-court in the first-round and the No. 9 seed. (That was the case last season.) Placing the Thunder here is a bet they win closer to 44 games — around their Las Vegas over/under — than 50, which is their “lots of stuff goes right” reasonable upside.

We have seen teams this young (including the Thunder of a different vintage) explode to that kind of win total, and these Thunder have some ingredients for it: a true-blue superstar in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and a supporting cast of hungry, fast, team-first gamers who fit well and seem to be rising together in a scary crescendo. But 50-win teams this young are an anomaly, and Oklahoma City’s depth is unproven (though keep an eye on Isaiah Joe as an under-the-radar candidate for a ballot spot in Sixth Man of the Year consideration.)

* My editors will attest that Memphis was slated for this tier even before the sad news of Steven Adams’ season-ending knee surgery. Rumblings that Adams wasn’t quite right had been circulating among league insiders for months. Ja Morant will miss the first 25 games for conduct detrimental to the league; the Grizzlies offense has been hit-or-miss without him.

Their defense reaches another level of snarling physicality in those games, which is why Memphis has done so well two years running in Morant’s absence. But they were a mortal 11-10 without him last season, and Tyus Jones — steady hand on the Good Ship Grizz — is gone.

Flipping two or three of those wins to losses — something like an 11-14 start — would be enough to put Memphis in danger of missing out on a top-6 seed.

Marcus Smart is here, but the Grizz have to find a newish identity on the fly without several key players. Depth was already a concern before the Adams news. Brandon Clarke — their most important holdover reserve — will miss a chunk of the season recovering from an Achilles tear. The rest of the bench (now that Xavier Tillman Sr. may start) is a bit of a mystery box. Even one guy who feels like a proven commodity — Luke Kennard — loses the confidence of his coaching staff for parts of every season.

Morant is not guaranteed to play the remaining 57 games. Almost every player gets hurt. The anonymous team sources speaking in the recent ESPN.com piece about Morant did not exactly project confidence he is past everything.

One wild card here: Even after trading two first-round picks (and Jones) in the Smart deal, Memphis controls all its own first-rounders and has a bunch of mid-sized salaries — handy in trades. They have the goods to upgrade if they want.

* The full-strength Pelicans are very good, as strong a bet as any team below Phoenix and Denver for a top-6 seed. Zion Williamson has played 114 games in four seasons. His own general manager credited him — with a straight face — for finally taking his offseason conditioning seriously going into his fifth season. The Pelicans belong here until they (and Williamson) prove otherwise.

* The Clippers are telling you what they think of their team by making good faith offers for Harden in what is (for now, and that time-ticking qualification matters a lot to Daryl Morey’s approach) a one-team trade market. The whole point of trading damn near everything for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George four-plus years ago was never having to do it again while they were on the team and in their primes. They were supposed to be enough.

(On the Lowe Post podcast this week, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton countered that the Clippers in 2019 might have expected that by the fall of 2023 — now — they might need to execute some largeish trade around Leonard and George at ages 32 and 33, respectively. It has been four years. Fair point.)

You can mock the Clippers for being precious with Terance Mann, but that misses the mark a little. If you read between the lines, it seems the Sixers want one of two packages for Harden — who was an All-NBA-level player when available last season: both tradable LA first-round picks (2028 and 2030, at least one unprotected) in one version that may not have to include Mann, or one of those picks plus Mann — and more stuff, including a first-round pick swap, per league sources and previous reporting from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

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Those are non-trivial packages when, again, the Clippers are the only team picking up the phone. Yeah, Mann is 27 and a career backup, but he’s good — and on a great contract. He’s getting better. Tyronn Lue is not entrusting him to start as some kind of middle-finger negotiating ploy.

Mann also stands for things the Clippers value given how the Leonard/George era has gone: availability, a thirst to play every game and a certain full-throttle end-to-end force.

The Clippers know what Harden is: a moper on an expiring deal who tends to flame out in the playoffs, blame everyone else, and look for the exit door. Harden had two of his greatest-ever playoff games last season — and nine bad to forgettable ones. One likely reason for the Clippers’ interest is that they know in the playoffs Leonard will be happy to do all the heavy lifting and shove Harden to the side. Harden, meanwhile is the kind of regular-season innings-eater the Clippers need to keep them above the play-in.

As is — i.e. without Harden, Malcolm Brogdon or any other outside help — there is little reason anymore to believe Leonard and George will be available every game when it matters. As soon as Leonard — a top-five-level player again for the final 45 games of the regular season — ramped up to playoff gear, he got hurt. Some key elements of the once-vaunted supporting cast are aging toward the fringes of the rotation, or have already landed there. Their replacements are (mostly) inexperienced.

Their new starting five with Mann is light on shooting and size; they could struggle on the glass.

The Clippers can push for the Finals if they make some win-now trade, stay healthy and enjoy some good shooting and matchup luck in the playoffs. Peak Leonard and George are that good. But that’s a lot of “ifs,” and the Murray-Jokic two-man game has eviscerated the Clippers since the bubble.

* The Mavericks scored like gangbusters in basically every lineup construction once they acquired Kyrie Irving (at least in games they weren’t tanking). They picked up several players with the right skill sets to fit around those guys — shooters, defenders, lob-catchers.

The fit in some cases — too many for a higher tier — is largely theoretical. You don’t find many teams 18 months removed from a conference finals even toying with the idea of starting a rookie at center. What is the road to an average defense here? The Kings — another all-offense, so-so defense team — are deeper, with more shared continuity. (Luka Doncic is already dealing with a calf strain.)

Depending on who you ask, the Mavericks’ third-best player is either Grant Williams or Maxi Kleber — guys who have spent most of their careers as backups, albeit very good ones who fit well in Dallas. (Williams, of course, will start.)

The Mavs floor is sturdy so long as Doncic and Irving are available. You might have read some stories over the last (checks notes) five years about Irving’s reliability. Even in best-case scenarios, it’s hard to see a ceiling so high as to project the Mavs some lock for a top-6 spot. Eek.

Washington Wizards

Detroit Pistons

Portland Trail Blazers

Utah Jazz

Houston Rockets

San Antonio Spurs

Charlotte Hornets

* The Wizards, Pistons and Blazers are no-brainers here. They could each trade their way down the standings if need be by flipping veterans for picks: Kyle Kuzma, Alec Burks, Bojan Bogdanovic, Brogdon, Robert Williams III, a few others.

Then, it’s full rebuild mode.

* The Pistons have something in the Cade Cunningham-Jaden Ivey-Ausar Thompson-Jalen Duren foundation, but it is even more raw today than Detroit anticipated because Cunningham missed most of last season. Bogdanovic, a shooting salve, is out for the next four weeks. Toss in the Pistons’ over-abundance of centers, and the youth movement is going to be … frenetic for a bit.

* Two weeks ago, I had Charlotte in the same tier as the Nets, Raptors, Pacers, Magic and Bulls. They could still get there. They probably have the best shot of anyone in this tier to jump up. LaMelo Ball is set for a huge bounce-back season, and the Hornets have several steady veterans in Gordon Hayward (when healthy), Terry Rozier, P.J. Washington and Cody Martin. Mark Williams is one of *the* Year 2 guys to watch. Steve Clifford gets the most out of his teams.

But the new criminal summons against Miles Bridges tipped Charlotte into “there’s just too much going on here” territory. Their depth could be pretty shaky. Charlotte could also flip one of its veterans for future assets, and sometimes it’s better to pull the plug that way earlier — before all the bottom-feeding teams flood the market with their own veterans.

* One of Utah, Houston and San Antonio will likely play its way up one tier. Their placement here doesn’t mean they stink, or that they’re tanking. It just means something like 35 wins feels both good and reasonable — and that number doesn’t get you in the top-10 in the West most seasons.

* Victor Wembanyama’s outrageous preseason play has me slightly nervous-slash-giddy the Spurs may wildly outperform every reasonable projection. What if Wembanyama is that good — on both ends? He’s walking into the league as a top-15 defender (and that may be very pessimistic) and his offense — even with Zach Collins serving as San Antonio’s main screen-setter — appears way ahead of expectations.

The guy is just everywhere on defense. He blots out the sun, the moon, the arena lights, every passing lane in a 20-foot radius, the basket you could have sworn you just saw over there. My god.

Tre Jones, Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell are quality young-veteran ballast.

But their roster is so young, with almost zero experience in meaningful NBA games. There are some fit issues to iron out with Jeremy Sochan and Johnson around Wembanyama. The bench is rickety. Depending on where they are in March, the Spurs may opt to hunt one final high lottery shot, especially given the lottery-protected first-rounder the Hornets owe them is at high risk of turning into a second-rounder.

* If there are surprises here, they are Houston and Utah — one team (Utah) who sniffed .500 last season before pulling the ripcord, and the Rockets having added two needle-moving veterans to one of the league’s most exciting groupings of young talent. Had they snared Brook Lopez (and they believed they were very close), Houston would likely be one tier higher.

Without him, I’m not sure how even a coach as demanding as Ime Udoka builds a top-20 defense from this roster. The Rockets are just so young around Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks, and the exact kind of young — raw, ragged, a little reckless — that rarely wins at a .500 level in the NBA.

Brooks is an elite defender. VanVleet is solid, but at his age (almost 30) and size, he can’t stem the tide up top by himself. There is a lot riding on Alperen Sengun growing right now into a passable back-line defender — a huge leap.

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Most of the rest of the rotation is college-age. Several of those guys project as plus defenders soon — Jabari Smith Jr., Amen Thompson, Tari Eason (he’s there now) — but it’s rare for players that age to get there.

Houston’s offense will jump some, but league-average may be a stretch.

* Utah won 37 games last year with a similar roster, though losing a half-season of Conley hurts. Their guard rotation is a jumble of shoot-first, shoot-second types — plus a pile of young guys.

Almost every core player is on the upswing. John Collins might be an awkward fit alongside Walker Kessler — just as he was next to Clint Capela — but he’s an undeniable talent injection itching to remind people how good he is.

The upside of the strange crowd at guard is real depth. Ochai Agbaji showed more breadth to his game late last season. Kris Dunn looks awesome.

But the Jazz are still young, and a little weird, and the conference upgraded all around them. They might end up above San Antonio and Houston in the standings, but chasing a top-6 spot feels like a long shot.

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